This batch of away games through Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim is going to be a fascinating run, as the Astros get to play three of the leading AL West and Wildcard contenders late in the season, when the games really, really matter. If the Astros go .500 between the start of this game and the end of the season, they get to 72 wins (and 90 losses, for those with math difficulties) which by itself sounds poor, but (i) in comparison to the last three years of misery and suffering and (ii) after a 9-19 April, is nothing to sniff at.
I think there is generally a more positive feel about the Astros because of some unexpected and breakout performances from young, cost controlled players. Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh both look like mid-rotation starters with upside, Jose Altuve looks like he could barrel-up anything within one Altuve of the strike zone, and Chris Carter is turning into the power-hitting monster he has been threatening to be for a while (and kudos to the front office for sticking with him when multiple commentators in various websites thought that a DFA was in order). Carter's wRC+ by month in 2014: 72, 118, 78, 177, 162, 347 (the Sept value is obviously in a very small number of games).
The A's have been beating up on Houston since the Astros slid across to the AL. Since the beginning of 2013, the A's have clearly been the most consistent and best team inside the Al West that the Astros have played. But baseball is a "what have you done for me lately?" kind of game, and it should be pointed out that since the July 31 trade deadline, the Astros have managed a promising 17-14 record while the A's have slid to a 13-19 record. So, perhaps this series is going to be closer than at first glance.
The Astros won another tight one, thanks to the Jose-Altuve-and-Chris-Carter 1-2 punch. Together, they combined to score as many runs as the A's managed, and an extra home run from Jon Singleton pushed the Astros to a 4-3 win. Carter had the clutch 2-run shot to take the lead, Brett Oberholtzer battled to stay in the game, and the bullpen was solid behind Tom Lawless' eschewing of the "closer rules" and his willingness to use a top reliever for more than 3 outs for the second time in his short MLB managing career. More details below...
On the Mound:
Brett Oberholtzer got the start, coming off his worst start of the season against Texas on August 29. In that game, he gave up 7ER in 4.1 innings pitched. Tonight, he was much better, but he also fought his control, missed arm-side a lot, and struggled with the strike zone at times.
Obie started well enough, retiring the side in order in the first. In the second inning, he hit Adam Dunn with a pitch with two outs, and allowed a Jed Lowrie single, but stranded both runners as ex-Stro Nate Freiman flew out to CF.
The Astros took the lead in the top half of the third, and it looked like it would be a tight game. Logic would dictate at that point that a team would be well advised to record outs when the opportunities present themselves. The Astros did the exact opposite of that for the next two innings. In the third, Callaspo reached on what was scored as a single, but the ball inexcusably bounced off the heel of Obie's glove, and he couldn't get it over to first time time. He then struck out Coco Crisp. Obie then struggled with the strike zone to Craig Gentry and Josh Donaldson, walking both. I noticed that he was struggling to pitch inside to righties, and that many of his pitches missed off the plate away from righties. Derek Norris then started a soft-hit-parade that resulted in three runs - he dumped one off the very end of the bat on a sinking change in front of Marisnick in RF for an RBI single, and when Marisnick tried to attack the ball to make the catch he muffed the fielding effort, and a second runner scored on the error. Jonny Gomes fouled out, then Adam Dunn singled to RF on a routine grounder where the second baseman would normally be situated, and a seemingly slightly hobbled Marwin Gonzalez was unable to come up with the play moving to his left. Altuve was standing in short right field, so he had no chance to throw out the runner. That single scored Josh Donaldson. Obie ended the frame on a fielder's choice, having thrown 34 pitches in that inning, allowing three earned runs in the process.
In the fourth, the Astros decided to practise getting out of bases loaded situations. Only this time, they elected to load the bases with no outs on an infield single to Nate Freiman that bounced off Obie's glove (if he had let it go, it would have been a routine grounder, as Altuve was shifted toward second), a clean Callaspo single to CF up the middle, and a Fowler error in CF (second dropped catch in four games, I believe) loaded the bases. However, Obeholtzer coaxed two ground balls to third to end the frame - the first resulted in a force at home, and the second resulted in a 5-2-3 double play, elegantly started by Dominguez and assisted by an impressive Castro throw to first. So no runs scored in the fourth despite a bases loaded, no-out situation for the A's.
Obie then settled right down, the next six batters in order, and allowed a leadoff single to Coco Crisp in the seventh. He had begun to look a little flat at this time, and when Gentry flew out to CF, it was obvious that Tom Lawless was not going to let him face Josh Donaldson with the game on the line and a runner on (the Astros had a 4-3 lead at this point). Obie's final line: 6.1IP, 7H, 3R/ER, 2BB, K, 7:11 GB:FB ratio. He never really had his strikeout pitch working, but he also induced lots of weak contact - especially pop-ups.
Jose Veras came on and struck out Donaldson and Norris, getting to deep counts on both, throwing 13 pitches in the process, and stranding the runner. The battle with Norris was interesting - he fouled off a bunch of breaking balls, but Veras eventually struck him out on high cheese.
Lawless turned to Sipp to start the eighth, and Phat Tony struggled a little with command, but was pretty solid. He is obviously quite deceptive in his delivery, as many of the A's batters seemed to be getting late cuts on modestly paced fastballs. Sipp struck out Adam Dunn on high heat and Jed Lowrie on a breaking ball in the dirt (Lowrie reached on a wild pitch but was stranded) in the eighth.
Chad Qualls started warming only as the top of the ninth was wrapping up, so it was obvious that Lawless was not going to get him to start the ninth. The A's had stacked their lineup to face the lefty Oberholtzer, and as such, were left with a myriad of lefty power-hitters on the bench (Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt and Brandon Moss) that Lawless thought Qualls would have to run through if he brought him on. So he elected to stick with Sipp, who struck Callaspo out on ball four away, then Coco Crisp on a 2-2 count, and then enticed Gentry into a pop up to finish the game. Sipp recorded the last six outs, allowing only one baserunner, who reached on a strikeout / wild pitch combo.
I note that Lawless did a similar thing with Josh Fields in his first game managing on Sept 2. Fields came on in the eighth to face Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, and he retired them in order on eight pitches. So he also worked the ninth, allowing a lead-off ground-rule double, but stranding the runner as he retired the rest of the side in order. The Astros had a larger lead then (8-3), but it will be interesting to see whether this develops into a pattern.
Personally, I like using high leverage relievers in the AL (and the NL, if the pitcher's spot in the order doesn't interfere) for more than three outs at a time, and using them less often over a season. Bullpen management did not seem to be Bo Porter's forté, so it will be interesting to see if Astros fans see a change. I also agree with keeping Qualls out of a potentially difficult situation against a club that he has struggled against in 2014.
At the Plate:
Interesting batting order tonight, with Marwin Gonzelez batting 6 (behind Castro), Dominguez (0-4) batting seven, Singleton eight and Marisnick (0-3) at nine. Another Lawless quirk perhaps (or orders directly from Ground Control), but Marwin (who went 1-4) is probably his best contact hitter out of the last 4 batters, so I can see the logic.
The Astros didn't do much against The Shark early, with Samardzija setting the side down in order in the first and second frames. In the third, with one-out, Singleton (1-3, HR) took a first pitch 94mph fastball down the middle (Samardzija missed a little up) and drove it just over the 15' high wall at the 362' sign in RF. It was nice piece of hitting, and gave the Astros the lead early.
In the fourth, the Altuve-Carter show started. Jose Altuve (2-4, SB) took a neck-high pitch and drove it over the second baseman for a soft liner to right, then stole second on the same pitch that Fowler struck out on. Carter then battled Samardzija to a 1-2 count, and he took a slider low-and-away, stayed closed on it, and flicked it short of Coco Crisp in CF, scoring Altuve in the process. It was a nice bit of hitting from Carter - he didn't try and pull it or do too much with it, and as a result he was rewarded with a hit and an RBI.
In the sixth inning, the top of the order was back up. Robbie Grossman led off with a strikeout, then Altuve singled on one of his patented grounders-up-the-middle that he seems to get a lot of hits on. Fowler flew out for the second out, leaving Carter up against Samardzija. The Shark got two quick strikes, then Carter worked the count to 3-2 (fouling off two good pitches). The eighth pitch of the at-bat was a 97mph fastball that Norris called for at the knees, but Samardzija missed glove-side-and-up, and Carter mashed it 439ft to just to the left of straightaway CF. Impressive at-bat from Carter, and he was rewarded with The Shark eventually missed with his pitch. The two-run shot put the Astros in the lead, which they would not relinquish, and gave Carter his second and third RBI's of the night.
The only remaining baserunners were on a Castro (1-4) single (6th inning) and a Gonzalez ninth inning single.
Carter's sixth inning bomb. I believe that he fought off a good high fastball, and a splitter or slider low-and-away - both really good strikeout pitches - before riding the Samardzija pitch into the stands that sit above the CF fence. Impressive. Another "Must C Clutch" moment for Chris Carter.
Player of the Game:
Chris Carter (2-4, HR, 3RBI) has handsomely addressed concerns around his mini-slump with a recent breakout - three HR's in two games - and now sits at 36 on the year. If this continues, then I would think his OBP would spike as pitchers start throwing around the zone and not giving him anything to hit. His triple-slash currently sits at .234/.304/.526.
Goat of the Game:
Anyone who wore a glove in the third and fourth innings on the Astros. They combined to give away at least three outs in those two frames, and a well-timed extra-base hit in the fourth could have put the game away for the A's and knocked Obie out of the game.
Day game at O.Co tomorrow.
Scott Feldman (8-10, 4.09) versus Scott Kazmir (14-7, 3.39)
4 Eastern, 3 Central.